Paul writes the letter we call Philippians from prison. While there is some scholarly debate about whether he’s in prison in Rome or Ephesus or somewhere else, I’m going to assume he’s in Rome, because it makes for a better story.
And I never let the facts get in the way of good story.
Where he’s in prison doesn’t really matter. Prison wasn’t a pleasant place to be, no matter what city he was in. What’s important is Paul’s attitude toward his imprisonment. His letter reveals fascinating insights into Paul’s perspective on prison, pain, suffering, death, and the meaning of life.
You know, the little things.
As we’re about to see, even when he’s suffering and possibly facing death, Paul never loses sight of his primary mission in life. Paul is obsessed, yes obsessed, with the progress of the gospel. He wants to see the good news of Jesus spread across the Roman Empire and sink deep into the the churches he’s already helped start.
In Philippians 1:12-26, Paul makes it clear that what really matters to him is making Christ known.
“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” (Philippians 1:12–14, NIV)
He says making Christ known is more important than his freedom.
His imprisonment has advanced the gospel, both in and outside of prison.
Several of his friends in Philippi know firsthand how Paul’s imprisonment can open the door to share the good news of Jesus. Acts 16:23-34 tells the story of Paul’s time in jail in Philippi. He and Silas, his traveling companion, are praying and singing in the middle of night, when an earthquake breaks their chains and opens all the doors in the jail. The jailer, thinking all of his prisoners have escaped, is about to kill himself when Paul stops him and tells him they are all still present and accounted for.
The jailer asks Paul, “What must I do to be saved?”
Paul says, “I thought you’d never ask.”
He tells the jailer the story of Jesus, and in the middle of the night, the jailer and his entire family are baptized. They become part of the church in Philippi. Which means they were probably there to hear Paul’s letter read out loud. I wonder if they said “amen” when Paul says his imprisonment has advanced the gospel?
His friends in Philippi understand better than anyone how Paul is a gospel opportunist.
Set Paul free and he’ll find a crowd and start preaching.
Put him in prison and he’ll make the most of a captive audience and tell his cellmates about Jesus.
Chain him to a guard and he’ll lead his captor to Christ.
Give him a pen and paper and he’ll write a letter about Jesus.
Paul sees every experience, every encounter, every conversation as an opportunity to tell the story of Jesus.
He doesn’t even have to fully agree with others who are also telling the story.
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” (Philippians 1:15–17, NIV)
Some of Paul’s competitors, those who don’t approve of everything Paul teaches, have discovered that by preaching Christ on the outside they can cause trouble for Paul on the inside. I wish we had more details about who these people were and why they were so determined to make things hard for Paul. Much like the mystery of where Paul was when he wrote this letter, chasing down the identity of his rivals can actually distract us from larger point, which Paul summarizes in the next verse.
“But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,” (Philippians 1:18, NIV)
He says making Christ known is more important than the motives of those who are preaching.
But wait! There’s more!
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.” (Philippians 1:18–26, NIV)
Paul also says making Christ known is important than his preferences about life and death.
Paul believes there’s a chance he’s not going to survive his imprisonment. This is not the first time. He has had a number of near death experiences throughout his ministry (See 2 Corinthians 1:8-10).
He says if he lives, he can continue to serve Christ and have a fruitful ministry. But if he dies, then he gains everything. because finally get to go and be with Jesus. He confesses to his friends the difficulty in choosing between the two. Should I stay or should I go?
(Little known fact: this passage is the inspiration behind The Clash’s hit song of the same title. Just because I can’t cite a source for this revelation doesn’t mean it’s not true. Okay, maybe it means exactly that. Or maybe not. I’ll let you decide. But don’t waste too much time on Google fact-checking me on this one.)
Ultimately, Paul believes it will be better for his friends Philippi if he lives. That way he can continue to help them progress in their faith. Paul is willing to set aside his preference to go and be with Jesus for their benefit. Because what really matters to Paul is the progress of the gospel in those he loves.
We all have a filter through which we view our circumstances and interpret our experiences.
An entrepreneur might view an event through the filter of profitability and ask the question: How can I use this expand my business or sell more product?
A general might view an event through the filter of his battle plan and ask: How can I use this to exploit my adversary’s weakness?
A teacher might view an event through the filter of teachable moments and ask: How can I use this to teach an important lesson?
A lawyer might view an event through the filter reducing a clients liability and ask: How can I use this to log a few more billable hours?
A preacher might view an event through filter of a sermon illustration and ask: How can I turn this into a funny story to keep people from falling asleep during my sermons? (There’s no “might” to it. Preachers are always doing this. If I were in a plane that was about to crash, I’d be jotting down notes on how to fit the story into my next sermon.)
What’s your filter?
Paul viewed every event through the filter of making Christ known.
The fundamental question behind everything he writes in 1:12-26 is: How can God use my circumstances to make Christ known?
Paul wants his friends in Philippi to start asking this question of their circumstances as well. Everyone who follows Christ is qualified to ask this question. But asking it doesn’t come naturally. It’s a skill we have develop. A habit we have to form.
Imagine the difference this question can me in our attitudes toward a variety of life experiences, both positive and negative?
How can God use my success, my victory, my breakthrough to make Christ known?
How can God use my pain, my failure, my suffering, my diagnosis, my disaster to make Christ known?
What would happen if you started asking this question?
I dare you to start asking it and find out.